Becoming Illiterate: The Real Adventure in Japan

It’s funny to hear anime and manga fans say earnestly, “I want to go to Japan!” Images of giant mecha and tiny Japanese maids follows along with rows and rows of kawaii and strangely adorable fashion. But honestly, that’s tourist stuff.

When anyone who hasn’t learned Japanese enters Japan to live for a long time, the reality sets in: “I’m illiterate!” It’s not like going to Mexico and seeing things remarkably close to English–Ingles is English–but more like dropping into a realm of complicated characters and incoherent yet noble English phrases.

The language barrier is a big obstacle for expats in Japan, especially the ones who have never studied Japanese. Besides romaji, the Romanized Japanese alphabet, non-Japanese-speakers won’t be able to read anything. Foreigners become virtually illiterate. The newspapers, the restaurant menus, even the manga become sources of frustration. “I can’t read!!”

For book worms like myself, it’s been challenging trying to overcome my Japanese illiteracy. In some ways, I’ve had to sacrifice my English literacy to close the gap. Instead of reading books in English, I’ve opted to study Japanese. It took me a month to memorize all of the characters in hiragana followed by another month of remembering all of the characters in katakana. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The fourth writing system in Japan is kanji, characters originating from China, and it’s the writing system that adorns stores, food packages, billboards, and signs. No one, even tourists, can’t escape kanji in Japan. It’s everywhere.

And kanji is where the illiteracy begins to take an ugly turn. Kanji has two readings, on-reading and kun-reading. On-reading, or on-yomi, is the Chinese way of reading kanji. Kun-reading, or kun-yomi, uses the pronunciation of the existing native Japanese word. As one of my co-workers explained to me, the way that most people know which reading is which, is by seeing the sequence of the characters. Most of the time, two kanji together gives the words the on-reading, but by themselves, they’re pronounced using the kun-reading. An example is using the kanji for “mother”,  母, pronounced haha in kun-reading. However, if “mother” is coupled with another kanji, 国, or “country”, the pronunciation changes to the on-reading, bokoku (母国), or “mother country”. To be frank, learning kanji is really difficult. Even some Japanese people tell me, “Even some Japanese people don’t know kanji.”

But there’s something endearing about kanji. Maybe it’s because of the difficulty that I’ve grown to accept it not as a hulking obstacle in my life in Japan, but as a part of the culture. I decided to try and learn as much kanji as I possibly can before I return to the United States. Some ways I’ve been slowly acquiring the meanings and readings of kanji is simply by asking my co-workers. “What does this mean? How do you say this?” (And this is where I get the same statement–“Even some Japanese people don’t know kanji.”)

So far, the best way I’ve been learning kanji besides by shameless questions is by reading manga. Some manga use furigana. It’s a small set of kana (hiragana and katakana) that shows the reading of kanji. Furigana is useful for elementary students and Japanese learners. The difference between learning kanji from a kanji practice book and a manga is pretty big. With kanji practice books, there’s little fun in them. Just memorize the stroke order, or how it’s written, and write it over and over again until it becomes second nature. However, manga has a more gratifying result. A story unfolds within each learned kanji, and the practical way that characters are used can easily become imprinted in one’s head. I’m learning Japanese idioms and new words with every manga I read in its original, untranslated form–something that would take years to learn in a Japanese class.

But I’m still a long way from being literate in Japanese, and so is every other foreigner who’s never studied Japanese in Japan. The rows and rows of kawaii can easily turn into rows of kowaii, so tourists and anime fans, beware. Study Japanese before you come to Japan.

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